Concerning Tolkien’s faith, as depicted in letter 250…
Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien. On this episode, we begin a discussion of Tolkien’s letters by considering a 1963 letter he wrote to his son Michael. In this letter, Tolkien seeks to help Michael work through a period where he felt depressed. In doing so, Tolkien opens up about his own faith, and how he keeps his head afloat in the world. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!
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“I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.” (172)
In a 1953 letter to Father Robert Murray, Tolkien admitted that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (172). Tolkien meant that “the religious element was absorbed in the story and the symbolism” (172). While the story contains no explicit reference to Catholicism or Christianity, it is nevertheless heavily infused with them. It is true that Tolkien abhorred allegory and preferred to write stories without heavy and direct symbolism. Nevertheless, on this Feast of the Annunciation, it is worth noting one very clear and quite intentional reference to Tolkien’s faith at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.
He could not get rid of his kind heart. ‘I wish I was more strong- minded’ he sometimes said to himself, meaning that he wished other people’s troubles did not make him feel uncomfortable. But for a long time he was not seriously perturbed. ‘At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey,’ he used to say. Yet he was beginning to see that he could not put off his start indefinitely. The picture would have to stop just growing and get finished. (257)
The heart of man is not compound of lies but draws some wisdom from the only Wise…
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, close friends and fellow fantasy trailblazers, shared a lifelong love of ancient mythology. In fact, this shared love of mythology happened to serve as a turning point in Lewis’ life. Furthermore, it reveals something about the idea of mythology that might strike most of us as very strange, and even lead some to dismiss Tolkien as a lunatic. Yet not only is this very point foundational to the name of this site, it is undeniably foundational to Tolkien’s entire canon of work.
We look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world. A light starts . . . and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease. (33)
‘You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? …You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’
– Gandalf to Bilbo
I had the opportunity to see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies today. Overall, I have found Jackson’s take on The Hobbit to be OK, which is pretty much what I expected. I was far more hopeful early on when Guillermo del Toro was on board to direct (Pan’s Labyrinth is amazing and beautiful and very Tolkienian). With del Toro, you had a proven fairy-story teller and director. With Jackson, you have a visual effects genius and a solid filmmaker with a flare for epic battle scenes. So for me, when I hear folks griping about all of the faults in Jackson’s second Middle-earth trilogy, I just have to say “What did you expect?”
When morning comes, it’ll be much like others: more labour and loss till the land’s ruined; ever work and war to till the world passes. (141)
Having closely examined “On Fairy Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf By Niggle,” I have found it somewhat puzzling that “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth” is now included in the compilation Tree and Leaf. After all, the other three works, while differing in genre, are of a very similar theme: the nature of human creativity and its ultimate purpose. At first (and second and third) glances, it would seem “Beorhtnoth” has nothing to do with this theme. Is it an anomaly then? Why has it been added to Tree and Leaf?
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat, And yet they would not in despair retreat… (88)
This is part of a series on Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia.” You can find the rest of the posts in this series here under Concerning Tolkien’s Works.
“Mythopoeia” is a response to Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis, who contended that myths are “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien sought to develop the idea that the ancient myths are NOT lies, but are instead hints of a greater reality to which human beings are called. In doing so, he led Lewis to a deeper understanding of the role of myth in the lives of human beings, and opened up the possibility of Christianity being the “true myth,” that is, the myth that actually happened in human history.